The artful book

Some people value books not only for their content but also as objects of art, as sensuous experiences in their own right. They like the look, the heft, the texture, the smell of books. Unlike collectors who value above all authors and their writing, these others delight in the artistry of the book.

All publishers try to make their books eye-catching. But major publishers, small presses and self-publishing companies are trying to develop an audience and make money. Artisan publishers often produce books that have a limited audience -- friends and families of the authors, and those who approach book-buying as if they are purchasing a work of art. Profit is rarely the bottom line. At best, the publishers of books as art hope to recover their production costs.

Two North Carolina publishers who produce finely crafted artisan books are Horse & Buggy Press and Rosenberry books, etc. Many of the publications they produce might be classified as cooperative publishing, in which authors underwrite the bulk of the publication costs. Cooperative publishing differs from self-publishing in that there is usually a selection process; potential authors submit their work for consideration. In self-publishing, the author buys the production services of a press. Both Horse & Buggy and Rosenberry also publish books on commission, but they have made their reputations on their handcrafted work.

Horse & Buggy Press is a one-man operation. Dave Wofford has been hand-feeding paper through letter presses for 11 years, since graduating from NCSU School of Design in 1994 (he also studied at the Penland School of Crafts). The bindings on most of his books are handsewn, the print impressed into the paper -- he has 120 cases of wood and metal type. His books have won numerous design awards and are included in fine arts collections at libraries in Paris, London, New York and the Vatican.

One book, "Birdhouses" by Rob McDonald, features 60 pages of photographs and sells in limited editions for $125 with a signed photographic print, $295 for a book in a handmade clamshell box. McDonald conceived of the project as a meditation on the ideas of place and home. The images of birdhouses dangling precariously from limbs, atop stark barren trees, hidden guiltily in eaves, were often surprising. McDonald is a self-taught photographer, and it sometimes shows. While his ideas and instincts are good, several of the photos in this volume would have benefited from cropping. Still, the book itself has an artistic heft to it.

Horse & Buggy Press also published, in limited edition, Allan Gurganus' short story "It Had Wings," which features a cover made from abaca fibers that were crumpled into a ball, dyed in an indigo vat, then ironed flat and handprinted. Wofford's goal is to re-create in the cover the themes of the story: angel wings, a sunny sky with clouds. Because of Gurganus' national reputation, this artisan book will appeal to serious book collectors as well as those looking for an artistic product.

Horse & Buggy's most recent commissioned work is Jack G. Gilbert's poetry collection "Song of the Line," which blends traditional and contemporary publishing techniques. The pages were offset printed, but the covers are Smythe-sewn and bound with foil-stamped linen cloth. This makes the book affordable, yet more attractive than most books you see in a bookstore.

Gilbert's poetry is accessible. It's strongly rhythmic, with plainly stated concepts and language that is often more prosaic than literary, as shown in the opening stanza of "Just Grace"

In public parking lots my ancient car

appears aggressive, worn and dented.

Yet it takes me farther than I need to go,

the while suspected of working at being poor

in a rich world.

The strongest aspects of "Song of the Line" are the engravings by Polish artist Henryk Fantazos. The blunt lines and images recall works of Social Realism; their execution reminiscent of Albrecht Durer, if he'd had a slight surrealist bent. The combination of accessible poems, excellent engravings and a well-designed exterior, makes "Song of the Line" a fine gift for people who enjoy a book that is more painstakingly produced than most.

Rosenberry books, etc. owned and operated by Diane Katz and Philip Bizzarri in Pittsboro, operates in a similar manner as Horse & Buggy Press. While their primary income comes from museum books -- books on quilt patterns, folk art, Judaica, learning kits -- they also publish cooperative and commissioned books in "Book in Hand" editions. I first discovered them when I submitted poems for an anthology featuring haiku by North Carolina writers, edited by Lenard Moore. After the selection process was complete, those whose work was chosen chipped in $30 toward the cost of publication. The writers in the anthology receive no royalty from sales, or discounts on purchase price, but can take pleasure from having their work displayed in a beautiful publication. The haiku collection, "Beneath the Willow Tree," features Japanese "stab" binding, moonrock paper from India, mulberry flyleaves, text paper made from Brazilian eucalyptus, and 16 original illustrations, carvings similar to woodcuts, made by Diane Katz from pressed linoleum. There are some good examples of haiku, like these by Richard Straw,

windows down

I slow for a turn

and birdsong

and Kate McVane

resolution --

below the new year moon

a dark road

As a whole, the collection is solid, offering a representative sampling of haiku from writers in this state. And the book will appeal to people looking for a beautifully designed book.

Other books in the Book in Hand series include "On All My Holy Mountain: A Modern Fraktur," which presents American folk art and a spiritual text. The handmade papers come from around the world. The full color Fraktur illustrations, which developed out of the Germanic culture in Pennsylvania, were created by Diane Katz.

"Apples Dipped in Honey: A Jewish ABC" offers an English alphabet, with colorful beeswax illustrations. The text is witty, and the illustrations, taken from rubbed linoleum carvings, are bright and charming.

The one problem with the more exquisite handmade books produced by Horse & Buggy Press and Rosenberry books is that the quality of the publications often exceeds the quality of the writing they contain. Still, if you're looking for a different kind of holiday gift this year for book lovers on your shopping list, the publications offered by Horse & Buggy Press and Rosenberry books are a nice alternative to a gift card from a chain bookstore.